TOC As sadness slowly sets over the land. Your Turn

May 29, 2007

A country I esteem sacrifices eprivacy on the altar of expediency. Is it a side effect of Memorial Day? Irony and indignation seem somehow out of place. Rather I feel a deep sense of sadness.

The media has giving us two edifying stories this past week. The first one unfolds in the New-York Times in a three act drama. First Charles Duhigg analyses how elderly people are a favorite prey for dubious marketing pitches (*). He then lets the two consumer data trading companies concerned present their defense (**). In the final act Mike McIntire ties the head of infoUSA, one of the traders, to Mrs Clinton, currently US senator and US presidential candidate (***).

Let us make no mistake. Although I concede this can be ruthlessly exploited by her political opponents, what the story has to say about infoUSA and Mrs Clinton is not its main lesson. The truth goes beyond the topical. As long as individuals are denied ownership rights over their personal data, corporate interests will prevail over democracy to defend their entrenched interests and shape the laws to suit their needs.

What can be sadder than to realize we live in a country where it is OK to steal as long as the victim is not a protected minority, that out of Charles Duhigg's research, we can at best expect some new version of so-called "privacy policies", which spell out how one can be legally robbed, and maybe some new age-based positive discrimination.

The second story I gathered from the Financial Times. Also in three acts, it starts with Maija Palmer's report about the concerns of "European data protection officials" on Google's personal data retention policy (****). Follows the usual defense from Peter Fleischer, counsel for Google (*****), in my own words "if you don't stand the side effect, don't use the drug". The story concludes with a thank you note to Google from Thomas Hazlett (******), letting me indulge in vicarious irony.

Here I am on the record as an admirer of Google's past achievement. A business model to satisfy both the users by cleanly separating unobtrusive ads from search results and the marketers by promoting keyword-based advertising. What is sadder than, to quote Peter Fleischer, "the rude awakening" implied by the fact Google has been overtaken by hubris (see 5/16/06, 9/12/06, 11/07/06, 12/12/06 fillips)?

Sadly though it doesn't even have to be so. ePrio has developed a technology which allows personalized interactions over the Internet without any compromise to confidentiality. Not surprisingly it has failed so far to be embraced by those corporate interests favored by the current status quo, the main force in the United States. Ironically it stands little chance to be embraced in Europe either. As a French civil servant at the famed "Commission Nationale de l'Informatique et des LibertÚs" once told me, the State is not here to promote better solutions but to punish malefactors.

So back to grass roots operations.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ............. Bilking the Elderly, With a Corporate Assist, by Charles Duhigg (New-York Times) - May 20, 2007
  • (**) .......... 2 Firms Tied To Phone Lists Will Review Their Policies, by Charles Duhigg (New-York Times) - May 27, 2007
  • (***) ........ Suit Sheds Light On Clinton's Ties To a Benefactor, by Mike McIntire (New-York Times) - May 26, 2007
  • (****) ...... Google runs into probe over data bank, by Maija Palmer (Financial Times) - May 25, 2007
  • (*****) .... Google's search policy puts the user in charge, by Peter Fleischer (Financial Times) - May 25, 2007
  • (******) . Google's algorithm of life: rejoice and be wary, by Thomas Hazlett (Financial Times) - May 24, 2007

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May 22, 2007

George Orwell's nightmarish society gave us two striking phenomena. Big Brother and his omnipresent gaze may be the better known of the two but the real world is closer to adopting Newspeak, the perversion of language.

Indeed Stuart Elliott gives us a good serving of Newspeak in his recent report on television advertising (*). Here is his gem of a quote from Mr. Morningstar, a network executive: "The goal is to "connect with consumers and give them more of what they want"". Given the present trend of fast forwarding past recorded ads, I thought consumers wanted more programming and less ads. It just shows how difficult it is for a foreigner to speak Newspeak. For a native like Mr. Morgenstar, it means to pack five-second ads in fifteen-second commercial breaks and to embed more brand references into shows. I cannot wait for the rising tide of new soap operas.

Language is of course a trade-off. Without it we could hardly communicate. With it we are bound to miscommunicate. New technologies though can sometimes reveal what language had veiled so far. Motoko Rich's article on the meaning of "out of print" (**) is a case in point.

The publishing industry is nothing but a recommendation mechanism which puts marketing bets on selected authors. This had been hidden so far behind the process of printing, warehousing and distributing physical books. Forget about e-books. While it still produces and moves a physical book, on demand printing is enough to left the veil. According to Motoko Rich's report, publishers want to retain control of all unpopular books on their lists, even those whose lack of popularity might be due to their own neglect and turned around by a competitor. It is enough to bind authors by contracts written to last "as long as the book is still in print", a Newspeak expression which turns out to mean "for ever and ever" in view of on demand printing.

If one thinks in term of recommendations, one might be tempted to back the authors. Recommendation is best when decentralized among competing actors. Why should authors be bound fast to a recommender who has signally failed to convince the market? Consider though that in the case of a long fuse success, i.e. a master piece whose recognition cannot be accelerated with money, the publisher may have as much right to the proceeds as the author.

Can one characterize the difference between a patient recommender and a lazy one? Isn't the issue similar to unvoluntary collaborative production and fall under our proposed rules for common sharing?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ........ Ads That Are Too Fast For a Fast-Forward Button, by Stuart Elliott (New-York Times) - May 18, 2007
  • (**) ...... Publisher And Authors Parse a Term: Out of Print, by Motoko Rich (New-York Times) - May 18, 2007

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May 15, 2007

The Financial Times "Observer", who makes fun of people normally as entertaining as a tombstone, recently sideswiped popularity-based truth in the process (*). According to the Observer, Congressman Knollenberg referred Toyota's lobbyists to an Internet poll which indicated 96% of his constituents supported some action hostile to the Japanese car manufacturer's interests. "Within hours of the meeting Observer noticed the poll had reversed", 75% of the responses being against any such action.

Humor is the best teacher. I rest my case on the power of pronaocracy and the limits of Internet recommendation schemes based on popularity measurements.

More seriously, Patti Waldmeir reports on discussions in the US Congress relative to genetic discrimination (**). As a bill to rule it out seems likely to become law, Patti Waldmeier writes "this bill is not about facts, it is about fear". If the intent behind this comment is negative, it is misplaced. Together with Greed, Fear is well known to be a major actuator of human behavior. In an age when political candidates market themselves as one would a brand of soap, it is wishful thinking to expect laws to rise above good marketing and never bend to Fear nor Greed.

What's wrong with such a law is rather that it addresses the wrong problem. As long as an individual is denied his or her data rights, no amount of anti discrimination law will right the balance.

Let us take an example. Suppose the genetic makeup of all candidates to the US Presidency is made public. Who will believe one second the information will not be exploited to discriminate against those whose genes reveal undesirable weaknesses or merely unpopular traits? Such information does not even have to be true, it only needs to be believed long enough to have the desired impact.

Another example is even more fraught with tensions. As Amy Harmon discloses in her enquiry on Down Syndrome (***), there is a growing fear that society will pressure women to abort any fetus carrying the underlying extra chromosome and will ignore those born with it in benign neglect. Let us remember that in some societies, the absence of a Y chromosome causes the same amount of anguish (see 5/23/06 fillip). Any anti-discrimination law can in effect be preempted before the subject comes under its protection.

The problem with eprivacy lies of course with the fact that any change of course would imply vast transfers of power within today's society. Among the individual, his or her mother, the doctor, the insurance and the pharmaceutical companies, the right to know, to withhold knowledge and to negotiate and decide based on such confidential knowledge, is at the heart of many complex, vital issues.

We have seen how pharmaceutical companies can prey on doctors' professional profiles. Alex Berenson and Andrew Pollack now document how doctors can reap large benefits from the same companies to push lucrative drugs onto unsuspecting patients (****).

Do not expect swift law making on eprivacy!

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ........ Yen for change, by the Observer (Financial Times) - May 10, 2007
  • (**) ...... The dangerous new age of the genome, by Patti Waldmeir (Financial Times) - May 9, 2007
  • (***) .... Prenatal Test Puts Down Syndrome in Hard Focus, by Amy Harmon (New-York Times) - May 9, 2007
  • (****) .. Doctors Reaping Millions For Abuse Of Anemia Drugs, by Alex Berenson and Andrew Pollack (New-York Times) - May 9, 2007

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May 8, 2007

Last week I picked up some voices because they had joined my chorus about eprivacy.

I can say the same today about James Harkin's essay on "Cyburbia" (*). Call it a warning that recommendation systems based on popularity may prove as pernicious tomorrow as they are pervasive today. Experts, or in James Harkin's words "traditional cultural gatekeepers", are not necessarily better providers of truth. But experts stand or fall according to their statements and can be held responsible by alert readers.

Lest my own readers think I intend to close my mind to new perspectives, I want to draw attention to three contributions on the right of individuals to privacy. Emily Gould (**) analyses how celebrities are losing the battle to amateur paparazzi. Christopher Caldwell (***) comments on Lord Browne's fatal slip as he tried to preserve his private life from tabloid exposure. Damon Darlin (****) tells us how journalists spied upon at the behest of Hewlett-Packard are now suing the company for punitive damages.

We already knew privacy is under siege. But beyond the obvious lies an important lesson, well captured by Emily Gould. What irks the victim is not so much the lack of privacy than the loss of control over the confidential data transfers which take place. Celebrities, among which the British count Lord Browne, want such transfers to be always positive for their image and career. Journalists need to maintain their own cover as surely as a CIA field operative as they spend their time digging information on others.

Technology has rendered obsolete current information law. Technology makes grabbing control easier for the strongest or the least scrupulous.

When will technology be used to establish a level playing field between each information holder and those who want his or her information?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ........ Rubbish piles up in the dead end of Cyburbia, by James Harkin (Financial Times) - May 3, 2007
  • (**) ...... Coordinates of the Rich and Famous, by Emily Gould (New-York Times) - May 5, 2007
  • (***) .... On private affairs and public good, by Christopher Caldwell (Financial Times) - May 5, 2007
  • (****) .. Journalists Intend to Sue Hewlett-Packard Over Surveillance, by Damon Darlin (New-York Times) - May 7, 2007

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May 1st, 2007

Let us inaugurate this shorter format by applauding two inspired commentaries.

In his latest "Dear Economist" column (*), Tim Harford lights the fuse to a powder keg. His reader wonders if skipping advertising on television is a breach of contract. As he enlightens our modern Candide on the intricacies of mass barter, Tim Harford gets around to value the cost of watching ads in proportion to one's income, suggesting $10 per 15 minutes as an example.

Dear Economist, why not show also how iniquitous, how antiquated a barter which attempts to impose the same benefits, i.e. the same content delivery, in exchange for vastly inequal costs, given the income disparity in the audience? Time theft indeed, but by the Media robber barons.

In his analysis of political campaign finance, Matt Bai (**) opens an intringuing scenario which could bring the demise of pronaocracy. What if the power of traditional campaign ads were to decline as more and more viewers resort to ad skipping? What if inexpensive word of mouth were to become the way of the future? Elected office would no longer cost a fortune and our representatives no longer be in the debt of special interests.

According to my musical notation, Tim Harford has struck its Re and Matt Brai its Mi. Let it be the beginning of a symphony to eprivacy.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ....Dear Economist, (Financial Times) - April 28, 2007
  • (**) .. The Post-Money Era , by Matt Bai (New-York Times) - April 29, 2007
May 2007
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